He’s back in the news, folks. After a recent spate of badly written books, (perhaps the world’s most famous living) novelist Salman Rushdie is once again in the center of controversy after Britain awarded him a knighthood on Saturday, June 16th. Once again, Iran is at the helm of the controversy, being one of the first countries to publicly announce that Britain’s honoring “one of the most hated men in the Islamic world” is a clear insult to Islam. And once again, the conflict is centered around Satanic Verses.
The situation, of course, is by no means simple since there has already been much violence done surrounding Satanic Verses. Starting eighteen years ago, there was a spate of riots, burning embassies, attacks on the novel’s translators, and, of course, the fatwa that, though thankfully did not ever come to death itself, meant the constant possibility of Rushdie’s own end for a good ten long years. I guess I’m trying to say that the actual material harm that has surrounded Satanic Verses came from both the insistence that the book be removed from bookshelves, and the responding insistence that book be continued to be published, or vice versa.
When asked how he felt about all that’s been done, Rushdie said that he can’t be responsible for the acts of madmen. This is, of course, undeniably true, but I can’t imagine that it’s easy for anyone to walk away from the idea that one’s own book has caused so much strife, and that his arrival on this conclusion was as simple as the manner in which he declared it.
In the same recent lecture (actually, it was more than a year ago, now) at the University of Minnesota, Rushdie made two separate, funny remarks, that have stuck with me since then. The first was an anecdote—he recollected a television interview of an imam who was reiterating all the reasons why Rushdie should be killed for writing Satanic Verses. When asked if he’d actually read the book, the imam supposedly smiled and said something to the effect of “no, because he wasn’t really much for books.” We all laughed with Rushdie at the absurdity of this man calling for a man’s death based on a book he hadn’t read.
The second one was just a pithy witticism—Rushdie asked us, riddle-fashion, what is the best way to not be insulted by a book? The answer—close it! Ha ha, we laughed, how true. How little a book affects us if we shut it.
But much later, the combined implication of these two remarks hit me—if I feel insulted by a book I haven’t read, shame on me for being hypocritical. If I feel insulted by a book I have read, shame on me for choosing to continue reading it and being hurt by it?
Rushdie, of course, has made no comments on the current controversy, except to say that he is humbled by the knighthood conferred on him. This is a fair position, for what can he say? For at least the last two decades, he’s been talking incessantly about the right to free speech (though, I feel I have to note, he has concentrated mainly on the right to make declarations and said little to nothing about two-sided debates), and once again he’s surrounded by people who strongly object to a book he wrote almost twenty years ago.
Obviously, knighthood isn’t actually an expression of free speech as much as a state’s approval of a man’s works. Still, how fair is today’s decision by “Hardline” Pakistani clerics who have bestowed upon Osama Bin Laden the religious order of “Sword of Allah” as a response to Rushdie’s knighthood? Is it a proportionate response? Unforgiveable?